While many Americans are watching the daily news conferences by President Donald Trump and some governors, the action behind the scenes is being led by the elected officials who are closest to the public, and who are directly managing the crisis in their communities: mayors.
As we listen to public health experts, including Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, we should also be listening to America’s mayors who are best positioned to identify problems as they arise and act swiftly to address them — if they have the resources and authority to do so.
Think of it this way: Mayors are our front-line leaders and battalion commanders in a war that Tom Frieden, the physician who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention throughout the Obama administration after serving as health commissioner in New York City, has called “World War C.”
Battalion commanders see the action up close. They are at the point of contact with the enemy and must assess their troops’ strengths and vulnerabilities. They must recognize where resources are thin and where casualties are concentrated. They must determine what tactics are working and which are not — and adjust. They have access to firsthand accounts and intelligence about what is happening in real time, which they must use to make on-the-spot decisions about when, where and how to advance — or retreat. And they expect that when they reach back for the personnel and resources they need to continue the fight, the chain of command will deliver.
The best mayors, like the best commanders, are unflinchingly honest. That can mean speaking truths their superiors don’t want to hear — and that is precisely what has happened in this crisis.
The White House was slow to hear the alarms that local mayors sounded, including about the dearth of supplies and the need for stricter travel restrictions. Unfortunately, partisanship being what it is, that skepticism filtered down to some governors, who stood on the sidelines as mayors took action. But over the past week, the tide has turned, as mayors have helped governors understand that ignoring their field officers is a dangerous mistake.
For instance: More than two weeks ago in Mississippi, after Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton urged people to work from home and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, the governor issued a far less restrictive statewide order declaring a wide range of businesses as essential and keeping dining rooms open.
Clear communication is critical in a crisis; confusion can be deadly. So Lumumba reached out to the governor on behalf of the local leaders he’d spoken with, and several days later, the governor agreed to clarify that the state’s order was meant to serve as a minimum standard, rather than supersede orders from city halls. Those kinds of quiet, unheralded acts of local leadership will save lives, and they are happening all over the country.
The first city to get hit hard by the virus, Seattle, shows the difference strong local leadership can make. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s early actions to contain the virus, when much of the country was not taking it seriously, saved lives and helped stabilize the outbreak. Durkan said last week that “there are no good choices” facing local leaders, “but there are good decisions.” She’s absolutely right, and it’s critical that mayors share information about their decisions and the lessons they are learning, which is something that the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is facilitating.
Each week we hold a conference call with more than 100 mayors and their staffs, and each day our team sends an email update to everyone in the group with the latest actions that cities are taking to fight the pandemic, support their small businesses and mobilize the public. One example is Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer’s “Lift Up Lou” initiative, which brings local organizations together to promote health and wellness and lift spirits in a stressful time.
Cities have a lot to learn from one another, and opening up new lines of communication helps spread effective policies and practices. “The greatest resource in all of this has been other local governments that are in the same spot,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum wrote last week. “Each opportunity I have to work with fellow mayors is a reminder that while fighting the spread of the virus feels very personal and very local, each local response is very much part of a larger collective effort.”
But mayors can’t win this war alone, and they can’t wage it effectively without stronger support. It’s essential that our leaders in state houses and the White House listen carefully to our field officers and give them the resources and authority they need to protect the front lines, minimize casualties, rally their communities and drive the enemy into a corner.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. He is the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for climate action.
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